Amendment 8 on this November’s Florida ballot is labeled by its authors the Religious Freedom Amendment. The amendment, which would reverse key language of the Florida constitution on the separation of church and state, has the full-throated support of the freedom-loving Florida Republican Party. It is also lauded by certain organizations that defend liberty and free enterprise to the last, including the James Madison Institute, a recently formed think tank that issues glossy publications. But, for all the talk of liberty, the amendment has little to do with defending religious choice or protecting it from forces that might try to snuff it out. It has everything to do with enabling the unimpeded flow of public taxpayer money to sectarian organizations approved by the state’s Christian-leaning governing authorities. Rather than the Religious Freedom Amendment, the proposal deserves to be called the Church Subsidy Amendment.
In specific terms, the Amendment would strike out language presently in the Florida constitution that bans direct or indirect “aid” to “any church, sect, or religious denomination.” It would replace such language with an open-ended directive: “No individual or entity,” it states, “may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.” This revealing use of words relies on a popular right-wing assumption that religious individuals and entities are regularly discriminated against by government. The sentence suggests that government should be in the business of aiding particular religious groups. It construes government’s attempt to remain neutral in such matters as a form of “discrimination.” In general, it replaces a balanced view of religious freedom with a no-holds-barred version that sees no limits to religion’s role or the benefits it can receive from government largesse.
The promoters of Amendment 8 claim that they are merely trying to preserve existing arrangements under which religiously affiliated entities perform certain social services for the state. The amendment, they hold, would insulate these arrangements from potential lawsuits. But if this were their true intention, why didn’t their revised language reflect that intention? They could, for instance, have rewritten the clause to protect the principle of funding-in-exchange-for-services while at the same time reinforcing the ban on outright “aid” to religious entities. Or they could have made it clear that proselytizing activities would not qualify for state funding. Although their wording does dutifully acknowledge the authority of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, one needs to remember that the Christian wing of the Republican Party does not accept the traditional interpretation of that Amendment or the principle of church-state separation in general.
There is actually much irony in this attempt at obfuscation and overreach. If the Amendment were actually to pass (it requires a 60% majority), its Christian cheerleaders, who apparently have not considered the measure’s full consequences, might just find themselves with a doozy of a hangover. Any public money dispensed to religious organizations would surely come at the price of independence for those organizations, since taxpayers would insist that aid be accompanied by oversight and strings to guard against malfeasance. Christian groups receiving aid would have to be subservient to “gov’mint,” the entity they so love to vilify. Moreover, among the likely applicants lining up to receive benefits would be many with religious views unacceptable to those dispensing such benefits. Unfortunately for the dispensers, any attempt to deny funds with obvious bias would make them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and lawsuits. The result: a can of worms with no end in sight.
Hopefully, the Florida voters will show more foresight than the authors of this misguided measure and vote no.